Ancient carbon from a melting glacier gives high 14C age in living pioneer invertebrates

Glaciers are retreating and predatory invertebrates rapidly colonize deglaciated, barren ground. The paradox of establishing predators before plants and herbivores has been explained by wind-driven input of invertebrate prey. Here we present an alternative explanation and a novel glacier foreland food web by showing that pioneer predators eat locally produced midges containing 21,000 years old ancient carbon released by the melting glacier. Ancient carbon was assimilated by aquatic midge larvae, and terrestrial adults achieved a radiocarbon age of 1040 years. Terrestrial spiders, harvestmen and beetles feeding on adult midges had radiocarbon ages of 340–1100 years. Water beetles assumed to eat midge larvae reached radiocarbon ages of 1100–1200 years. Because both aquatic and terrestrial pioneer communities use ancient carbon, the term “primary succession” is questionable in glacier forelands. If our “old” invertebrates had been collected as subfossils and radiocarbon dated, their age would have been overestimated by up to 1100 years.